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4 Steps to Create a High Functioning Paperless Law Office

By Nerino Petro

Follow these 4 best practices to create a paperless law office:

  1. Adopt the proper tools and technology to power your paperless office
  2. Establish your internal paperless document management process
  3. Develop your paperless law office procedures and workflows
  4. Have fun and involve everyone in the firm

The Paperless Law Office

If you are not already working to create a paperless law office, you need to ask yourself why you're not taking advantage of technology to:

  • Reduce the amount of paper that needs to be stored and handled on a daily basis
  • Make it easier and faster to find information
  • Create a secure back-up record of your work by storing it in an electronic format
  • Access your law firm information anywhere at any time

While you will not be able to eliminate all paper, you can use significantly less with technologies that are widely available at a price that any office can easily afford.  Here are four steps to make that happen.

Step 1: Adopt the proper tools and technology.

My good friend Ross Kodner, coined the term The PaperLESS Office™. This concept established the realistic goal of reducing the amount of paper and how often it's handled. It doesn't mean completely eliminating paper, which too often comes to mind when thinking about a paperless law office. While we'll use the term “paperless,” keep in mind you'll still be dealing with some paper, but the amount of paper in use will be significantly reduced.

You really need just three basic tools to get started creating a paperless law firm:

  • A scanner to convert paper documents to digital documents
  • A place to store your digital documents, e.g. cloud-based law practice management software
  • Software to view and work with digital documents, such as Adobe Acrobat, Nuance Power PDF, Nitro PDF, etc.

Step 2: Establish internal procedures for document management.

There's more to properly implementing paperless procedures in your office than just getting some hardware and software and having at it. To create your paperless workflow, start by answering the following to establish internal procedures:

- What documents do I want to convert to electronic files? These could include:

  • Everything in your office or a practice area
  • Closed and old files
  • Documents after a set date
  • All incoming documents or select incoming documents
  • Portions of incoming documents such as mail, letters or pleadings
  • Medical records or other evidence
  • Discovery requests

Your answers to these questions will determine whether you need to add more digital storage space.

- Am I going to eliminate maintaining paper copies of outgoing documents in my files so both outgoing and incoming documents are all stored electronically?

- Do I have all the software I need?

  • Will I want to search these files or only have images of them?
  • Do I want to be able to scan a document then modify it in my word processing software?

If you want your documents to be searchable, you'll need the capability to perform Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on them.

- Will I shred all documents once they have been scanned or will I keep documents with original signatures on file?

- Do I want everyone to be able to access these documents, and if so, where should they be placed?

If you want to access your files from anywhere, you’ll need to think about cloud storage, preferably a secure cloud-based law practice management system.

- Am I going to use my existing electronic folder structure, or do I want to implement a data management system?

- What is my budget for this project?

Step 3: Develop your paperless workflow.

The paperless workflow you create for your law firm is basically a roadmap that everyone in your firm must follow to the letter. Any system will rise and fall on consistency. This will take discipline on the part of you and your staff, but is critical to paperless success.

Start creating your paperless law office workflow with this checklist:

- Decide where you are going to store your data:

  • On a local computer
  • In the cloud
  • In a law practice management system like Firm Central

- Determine how are you going to organize your digital documents:

  • By client
  • By document type
  • By matter
  • By year
  • Other: ________________________

- Create a consistent file naming structure that replicates the structure of the paper filing system. Here’s an example: 1728 – Linda Jones – Corresp – 12-22-2017

  • File number, client's name, type of document, completion date
  • Matter name, type of document, completion date
  • File number, matter name, type of document, completion date
  • Other: ________________________

- Scan documents in this order:

  • All open files
  • Files waiting to be closed
  • Closed files

- Map the steps for dealing with incoming and outgoing documents. Here is an example using Firm Central law practice management software:

  1. Mail is delivered to the law firm and is placed in the lawyer's inbox in mailroom.
  2. Assistant gathers mail from inbox and takes it back to their desk.
  3. Assistant scans the document and saves it to the matter file in the Firm Central law practice management system.
  4. Within Firm Central, they message the attorney that the document has been received and filed.
  5. The attorney opens the document in Firm Central and reviews it.
  6. The attorney messages assistant to send the standard cover letter to the client with the copy of the document.
  7. The assistant uploads the document with the cover letter to the Firm Central client portal.
  8. They also mail the client the paper copy for their records.

You can also create a visual diagram of the paperless process in your firm to make it easy for everyone to remember at a glance.

Step 4: Have fun and involve everyone in your firm.

Don’t develop the paperless workflow process alone – involve all of your office staff. This will help them understand what you are trying to accomplish. It will also help you get their buy in to the new way of doing things. Create written procedures and follow them yourself to get everyone in the firm to adopt the new process.

Make a game of the new process. For example:

  1. Put a box next to everyone's desk where scanned documents are to be placed. 
  2. Each Friday, have everyone weigh their box or compare their stack of documents side by side.
  3. Give out a small prize, or something your team will appreciate, for the person that has done the most scanning.

Humor and recognition will generate goodwill and get everyone involved.

If you want to position your firm to dramatically increase productivity and efficiency while reducing waste and overhead, it’s time to take these four steps toward a paperless office. If you don’t, chances are that your competition will and you’ll be left behind.

Nerino Petro

About the author
Nerino Petro, Esq., is a long-standing technology evangelist. He owns a legal technology consulting firm, and is technology co-editor for the ABA GP|Solo Magazine.

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